Defense was the best offense for the Siena College Saints.
Struggling from the floor and in deep foul trouble, the Saints found themselves in a 53-40 hole to Fordham with 12:06 left in the game.
But following a timeout, the Saints went on a 22-0 run — sparked by an aggressive zone defense — as Siena rallied past the Rams, 79-69, Monday night before a crowd of 6,131 at the Times Union Center.
Rob Poole poured in a career-high 28 points, and junior guard Evan Hymes came off the bench to not only trigger his team’s defense, but to also contribute 12 points for the Saints, who improved to 5-8.
Fordham, of the Atlantic 10, fell to 7-6.
“Evan Hymes won us the game emotionally,” said first-year Siena head coach Jimmy Patsos, who picked up his 150th career victory. “He started attacking the rim. Rob Poole had a great game with his 28 points, but we don’t win that game without Evan Hymes.”
Poole agreed that the 5-foot-8 Hymes played a huge role for the Saints.
“Without Evan coming off the bench and giving us that energy, we wouldn’t have won,” said Poole, who clicked on nine of 17 shots from the floor and eight of nine shots from the line.
The Saints had all kinds of trouble in the first half. They missed their first 12 shots from the floor and shot just 29 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes, when the Rams, using a four-guard offense, took a 34-27 lead.
Poole was virtually the only offense in the first half for the Saints with 12 points, but Fordham’s dynamic duo of Jon Severe and Branden Frazier, who average 40 points per game, had just 15 at the break.
Siena made a run early in the second half, despite the fact that center Imoh Silas picked up his fourth foul with just 1:10 gone. Michael Wolfe drained a 14-foot jumper, and the Saints pulled within 35-34.
But the Rams jumped out to a 53-40 cushion after Mandell Thomas scored four straight baskets.
That’s when the tide turned in the Saints’ favor, as their zone defense became more aggressive.
Siena scored 22 straight points, with Hymes and freshman point guard Marquis Wright combining for 10.
“We couldn’t guard them with their four guards, so we had to stick to our zone defense,” said Patsos.
“Their guards were very quick, and they can really score. We couldn’t really defense them man-to-man,” said Poole.
“I told my team that Siena was an exceptional 4-8 team and that their strength, rebounding and size, was our weakness,” said Fordham head coach Tom Pecora. “They had their way with us in the second half. Poole is a good player. He looked like Larry Bird. They are a talented team, and they did a good job with their zone defense.”
“When we stay together as a team, which is what we did during that run, we can be pretty good,” said Wright, who finished with 14 points, five assists, four steals and five rebounds.
“In the first half, we weren’t playing very well at all,” said Wright. “But our defense was much better in the second half, and that’s why we won the game.”
Brett Bisping scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds for Siena, which had four double-digit scorers. Lavon Long contributed nine rebounds and three assists.
Thomas (20), Severe (17), Frazier (13) and Bryan Smith (10) scored in twin figures for the Rams.
Siena also excelled at the free-throw line by making 27 of 34 attempts.
“This was a great win for us,” said Patsos. “Our fans really helped us. This building can become very electric. We pressed, and we created a lot of turnovers during that run. It also seems like this building helps us, because it seems spacious at times, but it can get a little tight when the fans are giving us energy.”
Siena travels to Monmouth Thursday and then returns for a three-game homestand by hosting Rider Saturday, Marist Jan. 10 and Iona Jan. 12.
Rhoomes 0-0 0-0 0, Frazier 5-10 2-2 13, Thomas 8-14 3-6 20, Severe 5-20 6-6 17, Smith 2-8 6-8 10, Leonard 2-3 0-2 4, Whitehead 1-2 1-1 3, Myers 0-0 0-0 0, Canty 1-2 0-0 2. Totals: 24-59 18-25 69.
Long 1-6 5-6 7, Bisping 1-3 8-10 10, Silas 2-4 0-1 4, Wright 5-12 4-6 14, Poole 9-17 8-9 28, Audo 0-0 0-0 0, Ogunyemi 1-2 0-0 2, Oliver 0-1 0-0 0, Hymes 4-7 2-2 12, White 0-3 0-0 0, Wolfe 1-2 0-0 0. Totals: 24-57 27-34 79.
Halftime: Fordham, 34-27. Three-point goals: Fordham 3-19 (Frazier 1-3, Thomas 1-3, Severe 1-8, Smith 0-5); Siena 4-10 (Wright 0-2, Poole 2-3, Oliver 0-1, Hymes 2-4). Rebounds: Fordham 36 (Smith 9), Siena 39 (Long 9). Assists: Fordham 8 (Frazier 3), Siena 15 (Wright 5). Total fouls: Fordham 27, Siena 20. Fouled out: Rhoomes, Smith, Leonard, Silas. Attendance: 6,131.